Mayor Anthony A. Williams speaks eloquently about good government as a vehicle of opportunity. “It’s the meansthe path to justice, to opportunity, to hope for people,” the mayor announced at his re-election kickoff last summer.
Lately, it seems, Williams and his reform-oriented underlings have turned government into a D.C.-politics version of the I Have a Dream Foundation: With a $236,000 Department of Health contract, disclosed in late March by the Washington Post, former Mayor Sharon Pratt has been transformed into a bioterrorism-preparedness expert. A $426,000 outlay to former financial-control-board staffer Dexter Lockamy, which more recently made the Metro section, metamorphosed him into D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) own high-financier.
The Williams regime has also elevated Jeffrey Thompson to the unofficial post of D.C. government’s Mr. Fix-It. With his multifaceted toolbox, Thompson has made service calls for the administration on everything from a Department of Human Services risk-management plan to a head-count for DCPS of public- and charter-school students to information-technology consulting for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). His payment comes in the form of lucrative contracts, most notably a recent $11 million deal to make sure D.C. complies with a federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which requires that states protect patient privacy, among other safeguards.
“He’s got his fingers in everything,” says one former Williams-administration official of Thompson.
In 1983, Thompson founded the accounting firm now known as Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates (TCBA), one of the largest minority-owned accounting concerns in the country. During the past 20 years, Thompson and D.C.-based TCBA have expanded from green-eyeshade number-crunchers to information-technology consultants, asset-securitization specialists, and economic-development advisers, to name a few of their roles.
Back in 1995, Thompson was instrumental in recruiting Williams to become the city’s chief financial officer. He’s an important campaign contributor to Williams, as well as other local officials. In 2002, he gave Williams $2,000 and encouraged friends and business associates to contribute, too, according to several Williams insiders. Yet unlike others who’ve hitched themselves to Williams’ rising star, Thompson has managed to stay out of the news.
When Williams took office in 1999, he had few friends of any sort and took pains to distance himself from the coterie of hangers-on who had profited from the contractual generosity of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. Given the willingness of “several of his oldest and closest advisers” to speak to the Post for the most recent installment of trash-Tony copy, it seems as if the mayor has a smaller and smaller band of loyalists these days. Yet if there’s one guy who can still call Williams a patron, it’s Thompson.
Few operatives in the District enjoy the sort of attention Thompson gets from city hall. Whether it’s because he does good work or because he’s on everyone’s speed dial or because he ponies up during election season, his interests often appear to coincide with the administration’s.
Take the HIPAA contract: The city handed it to Thompson not once, but twice.
TCBA first got the contract in January, but there was a glitch: Losing bidders pointed out violations in the award process, prompting city officials to withdraw the offer. Disgruntled competitors also complained that TCBA had insider knowledge. “TCBA has been working on the same project since early 2002 providing Project Management and Assessment Services for the HIPAA compliance work. There is no question that such performance has given TCBA certain insight, information, and knowledge that gave it unfair advantage in bidding on any new solicitation related to the HIPAA compliance,” wrote MVS Inc. President Vipin Desai.
After a review, the city gave the job back to TCBA in late February. Next the contract had to pass muster with the D.C. Council. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans convinced his colleagues two weeks ago to place the contract under an extended review. When council secretary Phyllis Jones received the HIPAA contract, she found pages and pages missing. The mayor’s people scrambled to get another copy in for review.
Meanwhile, the Williams administration soldiered on. Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families Carolyn Graham decided to make the case for the contract herself. At the end of last week, Graham held various tête-à-têtes with councilmembers to explain the urgency of getting the contract done. Time was of the essence: The first deadline for compliance, in fact, was April 14.
The pro-Thompson offensive worked. The councilmembers who signed on with Evanseven Evans himselfsay they will not move to disapprove the HIPAA contract despite lingering concerns. “It doesn’t look real good, but I think we have to go forward with it,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
Ambrose and her Wilson Building colleagues rely on big shots like Thompson to produce audits of city functions, such as the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). Yet in a March oversight hearing, Education Committee Chair Kevin P. Chavous revealed that the TCBA student head-count undercounted students, including 388 in special education. “The auditor did not accurately count children in DCPS, which then led to exacerbated budget problems, and that’s extremely troubling,” Chavous said, shaking his head. “To have the news that the auditor shortchanged DCPS is unacceptable.”
When asked about Thompson’s knack for securing D.C. contracts, Thompson spokesperson Jeanne Clarke Harris responds: “Why don’t you question how much business the other Big Eight do with the city?”
Thompson’s involvement in government reform doesn’t end with TCBA. Thompson also owns D.C. Chartered Health Plan, a contractor in the mayor’s D.C. Healthcare Alliance. Chartered is responsible for many of the administrative functions in the city’s indigent-health-care network, which replaced D.C. General Hospital. According to an October 2002 report by the Office of the Inspector General, at least 40 percent of D.C. Healthcare Alliance case files have no documentation.
And a recent memo from the Department of Health’s chief financial officer noted: “Chartered’s failure to accurately determine eligibility has caused multiple problems, including mistaken denials of Alliance eligibility; numerous instances of double-billing; and substantial delays in payment to health care providers….This has precipitated a crisis among providers, which loudly complain that they are often wrongly denied payment by Chartered and that payments are inconsistent, inaccurate, and unreliable.”
Thompson can count on years of sound contractual relations with the city. The Williams people love him, and the council’s toughest watchdogs don’t get exercised over his paper trail. “It seems like quite a lot of work goes to Jeff Thompson,” says At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania.
In fact, it appears that the District won’t even change its contracting rules without first consulting TCBA: The firm has an $834,000 contract to provide “procurement training” to the city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement.
* At almost every mayoral press conference, WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin badgers Mayor Williams about lobbying Capitol Hill on District issues.
Last Friday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) turned the tables and rang up Williams himself: The ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee expressed dismay over our Democratic mayor’s eagerness to work with George W. Bush’s administration in enacting a $75 million experimental school-voucher program in D.C. Kennedy had heard that Williams had met with Education Secretary Rod Paige to discuss a funding package that combines vouchers with federal dollars for things such as special education.
Opponents such as Kennedy contend that vouchers don’t help public schools by stimulating competition; instead, vouchers drain money and resources from struggling urban school systems. They insist that the true beneficiaries are often parochial schools, which charge tuition in the price range of vouchers. Those suspicions seemed confirmed earlier this month, when Paige told a Baptist publication, “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community…”
The push for vouchers reminds LL of the Newt Gingrich era, when Republicans used the District as a laboratory for public-policy experiments. Unlike a similar effort in, say, Cleveland, establishing a voucher program in D.C. would give a controversial initiative national prominence.
Kennedy doesn’t want a Democratic mayor helping a cause most see as distinctly Republican. “He made it clear that he was urging the mayor not to support Secretary Paige’s proposed funding for the District,” Williams press secretary Tony Bullock explained to LL. Local voucher opponent Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty agreed with Kennedy: “It gives a perception that we’ll do anything for a trip to the White House.”
Bullock didn’t elaborate too much on the mayor’s response: “The mayor thanked Sen. Kennedy for his point of view.”
* Ambitious young political newcomers often face a name-recognition problem with voters. That’s especially true in the stagnant world of D.C. politics, where incumbents seem to have as much staying power as Vanillaroma.
One aspiring pol making noise about jumping into next year’s at-large council race has already surmounted that handicap. Instead of asking, “Who are you?,” D.C. voters will most likely inquire, “Are you really him?”
LL’s talking about D.C. Council prospect Kwame Brown. Has the 21-year-old Washington Wizards star decided to practice legislating in the off-season?
Not quite. This Kwame Brown is slightly smaller than 6-foot-11 and is a less accomplished shot blocker. “I think we have a smart electorate here that’ll know the difference,” says the political Kwame Brown, who is the son of D.C. pol Marshall Brown. “[But] I can get you into any restaurant in the city.” At an April 6 fundraiser for Ward 4 incumbent Fenty, Brown introduced himself to deep-pocketed contributors as a possible Democratic challenger to at-large incumbent Harold Brazil.
The only other nonincumbent with better name recognition, of course, is Marion Barry. It’s spring; the cherry blossoms have bloomed, and so have the predictable rumors that the former mayor’s contemplating a run for office. This time, supposedly, it’s again in Ward 8. Though he told LL he’s “not making any plans,” Barry showed up last Thursday at Dream nightclub for Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange’s birthday bash and glad-handed adoring partygoers.
Barry joins a crowded field of 2004 Ward 8 maybes: Among those rumored to be considering a challenge to incumbent Sandy Allen in the Democratic primary are Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, school-board rep William Lockridge, former school-board rep Linda Moody, Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars, and Ward 8 Dem Jacque Patterson.
* Since joining the District government in February 2002, Mayor Williams’ senior adviser for religious affairs, the Rev. Carlton N. Pressley, has been hard at work. So much so, apparently, that Pressley can’t find time to go to DMV to change his license plates. LL often spots Pressley’s black Mercedeswith its North Carolina “Law & I” vanity tagson Pennsylvania Avenue NW near the Wilson Building.
But LL digresses.
Pressley’s latest effort is a letter to the city’s advisory neighborhood commissioners. “I am asking you to provide to my office a list of all the CHURCHES regardless of denomination that are located in your single member district,” Pressley writes. “There are a lot of great things happening in the District and I do not want any faith-based group to miss out on these new resources.”
Any faith-based group? You mean like those that meet in mosques, synagogues, and other religious institutions? CP
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